What I wish I had known starting out as an entrepreneur
A bright summer’s morning on November first, 2003, I remember waking up and deciding that today is the day I resigned from the prestigious McKinsey and Company. It was certainly not a decision I made lightly, there had been enormous comfort in being employed, even if you stick out like a sore thumb.The first person I called was my mom and I could hear the disappointment in her voice a mile away as I told her that I had decided to start my own business and that I’ll need to move back home. I completely understood her concern; I was leaving my comfort zone and venturing into the unknown.
Ten years later and I still concede that venturing into the unknown is most certainly the best decision I’ve ever made. I come from humble beginnings and I’ve marinated in the highs and lows of this journey, making money and losing it, standing at the crossroad and having to ask myself if this is really what I want to do for the rest of my life. As I reflect on the past ten years, I have no regrets however there are a few things I wish I had known at the tender age of 26 so here goes:
1. ‘Value your network but do not rely on them’
I worked for one of the most prestigious global consulting firms so my environment and network was all prestige. When I started Afrofusion, I was convinced this would open some pretty big doors. It didn’t. I had to start from the bottom and work my way into the trust bubble with clients by consistently delivering above what they expected. I quickly learned that it is not who you know but what you know, and how that adds value to your potential client.
2. ‘Knowledge truly is power’
The first account we pitched for, I remember sitting in front of a panel of older male executives with the look of “what does this 26-year old know, really?” This first pitch only happened 9-months after officially starting Afrofusion in my mother’s lounge. I prepared for the pitch with a close friend, who was a management consultant and we compiled the content for the pitch using a research approach. This laid the foundation of how I would approach every pitch and has become the essence of my business. We research our clients’ industries methodically and have influenced business strategy significantly.
3. ‘Plan, plan and plan some more’
In 2008, I decided to acquire a more established ad agency so we could compete with the big boys and stop playing in the kiddies’ sandpit. After months of negotiating the deal didn’t happen and left my business in some serious trouble. I slowly worked my way back from the brink of liquidation but the lessons I learned from taking this leap are invaluable. The most important is to plan thoroughly when making big moves and never allow passion to supersede logic.
“I’ve learned that failure will highlight weak spots in your business so pay attention to mistakes and failure”
4. ‘It’s ok to fail’
In 2010, I took another leap into East Africa, working almost two years on expanding and establishing Afrofusion in that region. I made this decision without weighing the costs and asking myself if we were ready, especially since we were still in recovery from the failed acquisition. When I finally decided to come back home and focus on dealing with the mess at the Johannesburg office and getting my business out of the red, the very first thing I had to look square in the face was that I failed. I hated admitting this to myself. It took me months to finally become ok with the notion that it was ok to fail. Failure is the fertiliser in the garden of exponential growth. I’ve learned that failure will highlight weak spots in your business so pay attention to mistakes and failure. When I researched some of the most remarkable entrepreneurs and realised that they all failed at some point at something, it gave me immense comfort in failing, learning and growing.
5. ‘Make money, honey’
When I started Afrofusion I was driven by my passion for our beautiful continent and wanting to play a part in improving the way we communicate. Making money was the furthest thing from my mind. Over the past 10 years I had to get comfortable with making money. I also learned that when you make money, know your money well. The transactional advisors on the 2008 acquisition would throw all types of financial questions at me and I didn’t have answers most of the time. My response to ask my accountant simply wasn’t good enough. Now I spend significant amounts of time knowing exactly where we are financially and this has helped with planning for the next expansion. I want to encourage you, especially ladies to get comfortable with making money and when you do know it well.
About the author: Antoinette Prophy is an entrepreneur by DNA. Passionate Afro-Optimist. Golfer. Realist. Always enjoy a good laugh. Love a good book. Antoinette is also the founder of Afrofusion Advertising. Follow her on Twitter at @AntoProphy.